Ukrainian art

History of the New Wave by Oksana Barshynova

History of the New Wave by Oksana Barshynova

This was the time when a new generation of artists asserted itself in the artistic life of Ukraine; their works demonstrated the final separation from the canon of social realism and the emergence of the original phenomenon with vivid national features, which became the Ukrainian version of the global postmodern art.

In its nature, the modern Ukrainian art owes a lot to the changes that took place in the mid-1980s, which may be considered as the beginning of free artistic practice; it was the time when modern art in its current understanding was born, and foundations were laid for the institutional system of its functioning. This was the time when a new generation of artists asserted itself in the artistic life of Ukraine; their works demonstrated the final separation from the canon of social realism and the emergence of the original phenomenon with vivid national features, which became the Ukrainian version of the global postmodern art. The beginning of the new era and a brand-new artistic practice was stimulated by the collapse of the Soviet system and the socialist way of life, which, along with the Chernobyl disaster, became for Ukraine an “end of history” of its own. The late 1980s – early 1990s is a period with its own leading trends, traditions, and origins. In addition to determining the value of a phenomenon, the transition from the living art practice to history raises multiple questions, most of which remain debatable and open to this day. The most important issue are the problems of terminological definition of phenomena and time frames. The scholars proposed various approaches to viewing the phenomena of the late 1980s – early 1990s, from realization of continuity and compacted nature of the art of the time as “modern/postmodern” (Hlib Vysheslavskyi) to attempts to separate, for instance, postmodern painting, with references to the global art development experience. The press started to apply phrases “Ukrainian New Wave” and the “Ukrainian transavantgarde” to the new Ukrainian painting between 1980s and 1990s; these terms are still used in the Ukrainian art history till this day. Another relevant issue is the position of the modern Ukrainian art in the Ukrainian context, giving rise to an extremely viable understanding of baroque as the leading national tradition, which may have various manifestations and can be seen in the works by artists of 1980s and 1990s in the form of “neo-baroque” (Halyna Skliarenko, Oleksandr Soloviov). The rapid overcoming of information blockade and prohibitions of certain means of artistic self-expression resulted in postmodernism and modernism coexisting in the Ukrainian art of late 1980s – early 1990s. It therefore appears possible to divide the art practice into two primary areas: the neo-modernism, which combined a wide range of various phenomena, led by masters of abstract painting (which become the Art Reserve group as early as in 1992), and postmodernism per se, which became known as the Ukrainian Wave (in particular as referred to by Kostiantyn Akynsha) in late 1980s, an analogy to the global New Wave. As it is widely known, the New Wave manifested itself in the late 1970s – 1980s, and was related to the comeback of painting after conceptualism, which emphasized the idea, and not the performance, of the work. Since the new Ukrainian art became represented at large exhibitions in Kyiv and Moscow, it was referred to as the “Ukrainian postmodernism”, “Ukrainian neo-baroque”, or “Ukrainian transavantgarde”. The letter definition is connected with the ideas of Achille Bonito Oliva, an Italian art historian, critic, and curator, who coined the term transavantgarde (i.e. “through avantgarde“) in 1979 to characterize the works by five Italian painters: Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Mimmo Paladino, and Nicola de Maria, characteristic traits of which were their own traditions ranging from the late Renaissance to the metaphysical painting by de Chirico, as well as the ideology of freedom implemented in the arte povera movement. Their large-format works were characterized by emphasized physicality, brutality, and intentionally careless painting. The movement towards painting in the global art of 1970s–1980s manifested itself under various regional names in different countries: the German “neo-expressionism”, the French “free figuration”, the American “bad painting”, etc. However, it was the “southern welcoming” of the Italian transavantgarde that the young Ukrainian artists felt close to. The postmodern art of Ukrainian New Wave, guided by the Italian transavantgarde and based on the foundation of Ukrainian baroque, rapidly developed into a powerful movement. The Ukrainian postmodernism emerged mainly not in the polemics with modernism (which was destroyed in the 1930s and remained only in some places as underground art), but as opposition to the totalitarian discourse and social realism. This was especially true for Kyiv, with its extremely powerful school of academic social realism. The main centers of the New Wave are Kyiv and Odesa, the cities with absolutely opposite traditions and circumstances of artistic existence. Unlike the regulated Kyiv, Odesa is the city of free communication between the underground and official artists, and, importantly, the origin of conceptual art, which gives the Ukrainian postmodernism a “proper” perspective as pictorial art after the “end of the art”. The combination of conceptualist practices with pictorial art is observed, for instance, in the works by Martynchyky and Leonid Voitsekhov. However, even before the mid-1980s the Ukrainian art contained impulses which helped the young artists accept the modern trends: perception deprived of mechanical borrowing. There certainly was some pre-postmodern period (using the terms defined by the literature scholars Tamara Hundorova and Roksana Kharchuk). In late 1970s through early 1980s, there were artists in Ukraine who viewed art as a play on meanings, a pileup of quotes and cultural clichés. In particular, such figure in Kyiv was Les Poderevianskyi, an artist and comedy writer who unleashed merciless irony against the stiff system of Soviet thinking stereotypes, legalizing the surzhik mix of the Russian and Ukrainian languages, as well as obscene words, in the “high art”. The formation of a new, non-Soviet culture and non-Soviet worldview took place in the 1980s in several directions. The postmodern irony emerged along with the fading of the social realism aesthetics, and most representatives of the New Wave grew up in the artistic environment and relatively early realized the relativity of ideological paradigms. The studied at Kyiv State Institute of Art, in the monumental painting workshop of Mykola Storozhenko, and took lessons from Viktor Zaretskyi and Anatolii Lymarev. It is also important that there were artists working in Kyiv in the 1970s – 1980s whose creativity transcended the social realism canon. Zoia Lerman, Yurii Lutskevych, Halyna Hryhorieva, Viktor Ryzhykh, Halyna Neledva, and others develop the Ukrainian art traditions, with the culture of painting and dialogue with the global art tradition defining their creativity. Another important personality in Kyiv was Serhii Paradzhanov, who expanded the perceived boundaries of art, as well as the continuity and comprehensiveness of creative self-expression. The late 1980s became a time of “forgotten” names returning into the history of Ukrainian art, with exhibitions of boichukists, avant-gardists, sixtiers, diaspora artists… The establishment of a new artistic consciousness was directly affected by literature, music, and philosophy, which until then had been scarcely available due to their “inconsistence with the Soviet worldview”. The reading of Heidegger, Borges, Hesse, Eco, and others stimulated the emergence of new images and a new understanding of culture.

Oksana Barshynova Art critic